HAMPSTEAD NEATH

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Summary

A post apocalyptical tale of 'God Vs Science,' set deep below London's underground where the only food available is meat grown from donated human D.N.A.

Genre:
Scifi / Thriller
Author:
David Johnson
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
5
Rating:
4.5 2 reviews
Age Rating:
18+

GOD: THE PROVERBIAL DEVIL

Corona, kuh-roh-nuh, that is how the ancient dictio book says my name is pronounced. It says it is also the name given a circle of light seen around the sun or moon, an envelopment of gas, a halo in the sky. But such notions are lost on me. The sun, moon and the heavens are not part of my world. In Neath, the heavens are forbidden, both physically and spiritually. The human race left them behind long ago, forced underground in the fiery aftermath of a ferocious and absolute war. A war fought for the dignity and glory of man kinds various ‘Gods’.

The exact amount of time since the surface of the planet was abandoned is unknown, lost in the absence of the suns periodic movements. All that is know is that we have lived in the darkness long enough for evolution to equip us with eyes far larger, and skin far paler than our terrestrial ancestors. I wonder if we can still call ourselves humans? After all, the cockroaches that followed us into the darkness, either by design or mutation, have also altered, growing up to five times the size of their surface-dwelling forefathers. They have been given a grand new name, ‘mammoroaches’. My crèche professor, Miss Spearfaun, tells me that it must have taken thousands, if not tens of thousands of years of darkness to induce the changes in the roach and human DNA. What is it that oversees ‘evolution’? This I cannot fathom. What decided we needed larger eyes to see with? And who or what redesigned them and set these changes in motion? Such questions often enter my mind, but I have learnt to stop asking. Such unempirical thoughts will land me in a cell of the de-spiritualization institute, and I’ve vowed never to go back there again. In Neath, science is law and God is the proverbial devil.

I lie on my bunk, too sick for my studies and stare at the dull glow of the wall mounted methane lamp in my grammy’s chamber. I wonder if its light bares any resemblance to the radiance of the sun that is said to still blaze far above the layers of rubble, earth, rock, and toxins that press down upon our existence. I reach my hand toward it, allowing its dim light to tint my fingers a lighter shade of sallow. “It can’t be like the sun,” I tell myself as my Grammy mops the pool of sweat from the hollow of my neck. “If it was like sunlight, I wouldn’t be sick. Would I grammy?”

“Hush poppet,” Grammy replies, her stool creaking with stress despite her lean, bony frame. “The physician’ is on his way.”

The wood of Grammy’s stool is beyond antique and priceless, trees being a thing of the past. The stool’s warped, mishmash of timber is said to have been recycled many times in the last one hundred years. To Grammy’s knowledge it has been part of a wardrobe, a chest, a table and a cupboard. One of its legs was once a broom handle. When the wardrobe became the chest, half of its wood was given to a family in the western downs of Neath to settle one of my less scrupulous ancestors gambling debts. It is now part of both a jewellery box and a picture frame. For fear of damaging it, the stool is only used for special occasions, or when I’m bed ridden.

To me, my ancestors’ frivolous use of wood seems like a wicked waste of trees, such a wonderful and bizarre form of life. I can hardly imagine a living thing that doesn’t scurry about the place like the roaches, a featureless creature that is anchored to the earth and grows from a grain of life no bigger than a rat dropping. I stare at the extractor fan set into the filth covered concrete of the ceiling above me and wonder if the trees survived the blackening of the land above. I imagine them dominating the shell of the earth, liberated from the axes and chainsaws of the world’s previous masters. I know that this cannot be true, however. Miss Spearfaun has educated me about the bombs my ancestors unleashed in the names of their various ‘creators’. Their concoctions of chemical-fire, engineered disease, and radiation eradicated all life from the surface of their world.

The coarse, hair-mesh curtain that forms the doorway to my Grammy’s chamber folds aside, and the short, bulky figure of Doctor Mayjar steps inside. A mass of unruly, ginger facial hair obscures his mouth, above which his forehead is permanently furrowed by a frown. He carries a rat-suede bag of medical instruments and wraps a pair of thick wire rimmed glasses around his ears, magnifying his already huge eyes. In my delirium I can’t help but liken him to illustrations of lions and wide eyed bushbabies that I once saw in ‘The Big Book of African Wildlife’ during a crèche visit to the vaults of the Salvage Library.

“My visit must be short Mrs Skyshear,” he says to Grammy, revealing the location of his mouth beneath the facial fur. “There’s been an outbreak of plague in the Western Downs and I’m fearful that it may be bubonic.” He focuses his bushbaby eyes on me. “I don’t really have time for your granddaughter’s self-inflicted illnesses.”

Grammy stands and moves aside as Doctor Mayjar approaches me, a look of deep, but restrained anger on her face. Mayjar drops himself heavily onto her stool causing it to issue a worrying crack. He opens his rat-suede bag and removes a glass stick.

“Open,” he commands.

I oblige and he turns my head toward the lamp, pushing down my tongue with the glass probe to gaze into my throat. The stick tastes of wax and chemicals, making me gag and wretch. I reach out toward Grammy, and she holds my hand, concern wrinkling her careworn face.

Mayjar holds the stick in front of my face and waves it from side to side, testing the reactions of my eyes. He puts on a pair of fabric gloves which are stained with the bodily fluids of countless patients and examines my crooked, misshapen limbs. I can’t help but think that it would be more hygienic for him to use his bare hands, and I wince in pain as he squeezes swollen joints and prods at the sore, weeping welts on my wrists and ankles. He removes the soiled gloves and shakes his head. “She has rickets Mrs. Skyshear,” he says with a sigh. “No matter how many times I examine her, my diagnosis will not change. Rickets is her ailment.”

Grammy rolls her eyes at him, her lips pursed. “Well we know that Doctor Mayjar, that’s old hat, but what of her fever, her welts, and her sickness?”

“She is malnourished and in desperate need of vitamin D. Her immune system is low, and I believe she’s picked up a virus of some sort.” Mayjar stands and Grammy quickly pulls the stool away from him. “Luckily for you I don’t believe she’s contracted the plague virus.” He looks down at me with a cold, clinical expression. “She hasn’t got it yet, anyway. If, and indeed when, she does catch it, I fear she will not survive.”

I struggle to sit upright, my pulse quickened by Mayjar’s grim diagnosis. He speaks of my imminent demise with blunt candour, displaying the same air of indifference for my emotional welfare that he’d expressed for my physical health. In his eyes I know that I’m the runt, a hinderance, nothing but a drain on Neath’s precious resources. He probably thinks it’ll be better for everyone once I’m dead, I tell myself. He thinks that all I’m good for is fodder for the bio reactor. A sudden determination fills me and I set my jaw, sickened by his calousness. I’ll just have to prove him wrong!

“Well, what can be done to help her, Doctor Mayjar?” Grammy pleads. An edge of hysteria has crept into her voice. “She’s all the family I have left.”

Mayjar removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Mrs. Skyshear, I have told you what your Granddaughter needs on countless occasions. She needs to eat her allocated meals,” he counts his instructions off on his fingers as he makes them. “She needs to drink her vitamin broth and she needs to spend at least an hour a day in the Hall of Sunlight.” He bends and collects his rat-suede bag. “Ultraviolet light and nourishment are the only cure for rickets.”


I lift my knees and slide myself up the bed slightly, delirious words flowing to my lips. “Mrs. Spearfaun told me that in the past, people used to float across huge expanses of water on ships made of wood. They would be away from land for months at a time. She said that they had to take a barrel of apples with them so that they didn’t get rickets . . . or was it scurvy?” I frown and try to sit up, my fevered mind struggling to recall the lesson. “If I could just go to the Salvage Library, I’m sure I saw a book that . . .” Grammy gently presses be back into my mattress and I redden slightly at the silence that follows my unexpected prattle.

Mayjar stares at me and laughs, exasperated. “Apples,” he says incredulously. “If you think you can find an apple in Neath then you really must have a fever.” He rifles through his bag as he heads toward the door. “Instead of dreaming of extinct fruit I suggest that you get yourself down to the Hall of Sunlight.” He takes a clay tile from his bag, scribes my name on it and hands it to Grammy. “This will excuse Corona from donations, show it to the flesh farmers when they arrive. Good day to you both. I hope everything turns out for the best.”

I lie back down, suddenly exhausted and wince as my bed sores rub against the matress. I get the distinct feeling that Mayjar’s definition of things turning out for the best involves my untimely death.

With a curt nod Mayjar folds back the hair-mesh curtain and leaves Grammy’s chamber, joining the throngs of people in the passage beyond.

Hope,” Grammy says. “All he can offer you is hope?” Her fist clenches around the tile, her knuckles white. “Well I’ll do better than hope for you.” She draws the hair-mesh curtain and retakes her stool at my side, tears shining in the subdued light. “I’ll pray for you.” She pats my hand reassuringly. “I’ll pray.”

I take her hand in mine, alarmed by her words. “Grammy you can’t,” I gasp. “If anyone overhears and reports you-” I begin to hyperventilate. “I . . . I can’t lose you the way I lost father, Grammy, I can’t.”

“Don’t you worry poppet. What I say to God, stays between me and God.” Grammy says, drumming her temple with a bony finger. She strokes my face, soothingly. “And if prayer can help you, then pray I shall. Now, try to get some sleep. I’ll wake you for our midday meal.”

Though the idea of facing our midday meal fills me with dread, I close my eyes and slow my breathing, exhausted and aching from Mayjar’s forceful examination. The sounds of Grammy’s fussing and the echoes from the bustling corridor fade into amalgamated hush as I drift into sleep.


I awake to find a steaming plate of sloppy meat swimming in congealed gravy sitting on Grammy’s stool, a glass of dark grey vitamin broth next to it. I stare at the meal, nauseated by the smell of the broth and repulsed by the origins of the meat. Sometimes it’s served in a stew, sometimes a soup, and sometimes, like today, as an unimaginative mound of shredded flesh, but no matter how it is prepared it always manages to revolt me. It’s compound meat, manufactured tissue, grown at the flesh farms in the Lower Core Laboratories. It’s created using DNA samples ‘donated’ by every citizen of Neath. The DNA splicers that work the flesh farms add just enough rat DNA to the mixture to avoid the consumption of the finished product being considered cannibalism.

I remember the clay tile Doctor Mayjar handed to Grammy and I breath a sigh of relief, thankful that my DNA is off the menu for the time being. I run my fingers through my long, greasy hair, trying to work out the knots. “If only I could take my hair off the menu too,” I murmur to myself. Every six months, citizens are also expected to ‘donate’ their hair to produce hair-mesh fabric. This twice-yearly shearing is also undertaken to combat Neath’s rampant head lice problem. But even so, my hair is the only part of me that seems to grow well, and I loath being parted from it.

I lean over and pick up the glass of vitamin broth, the lesser of two evils. The broth is also a product of the Lower Core Laboratories. It’s a cocktail of ground bone, essential minerals, and reconstructed plant matter. The origins of the plant matter are uncertain but it’s speculated that the founders of Neath inadvertently brought the original samples with them when they fled the planet’s surface, carrying them in the treads of their boots and beneath their fingernails. Over the years, the genetic material of these original scraps has been cloned many billions of times. Sadly, the laboratories have never been able to salvage enough complete DNA strands to reconstruct a complete living plant, just random clusters of cells.

I take a gulp of the thick broth, trying to ignore the layer of liquid fat floating atop it. It has the consistency of infected mucus and I retch at the dry, chalky taste. I wipe the residue from my lips and glance around the room, wondering where Grammy is and why she didn’t wake me as she’d said she would.

The hair-mesh curtain folds aside and Grammy steps into the room, a discoloured ceramic bowl in her hand. In the corridor behind her, I catch a glimpse of flames licking the floor and walls of the passage. “Oh poppet, you’re awake,” she says, drawing the curtain. “I’m sorry I didn’t wake you, you looked so peaceful.” She glances at the glass of broth in my hands and smiles. “I’m glad to see you’re eating. Do you feel any better?”

I nod my head enthusiastically, hoping to lessen her concern, but the motion makes me woozy. I put down my glass and lie back on the bunk. “Where have you been?” I ask.

“The latrine was full, so I took a trip to the bioreactor. There are vermin control squads walking the corridors with flamethrowers. They’re scorching the paths from here to the Western downs, hoping to burn any fleas and lice that might be carrying the plague virus.” Grammy folds back another curtain and returns the ceramic bowl to the concrete latrine. “I saw Crutch at the reactor. He gave me a message from Miss Spearfaun for you.”

“Crutch?” I say, sliding myself back up the bed. “What did he say?”

Grammy sits back on her stool and hands me the glass of broth. “Drink up and I’ll tell you,” she says, smiling ruefully at my sudden interest. “He asked after you and sends his love. He says Miss Spearfaun has organised a crèche trip to the Lower Core Laboratories in two weeks time.” Her eyes twinkle at me. “Look at you, you light up at the mention of his name just as much as he does at yours. You two would make an endearing couple.”

I look down into my broth, embarrassed. “It’s not like that Grammy. We’re friends.” I sigh and shake my head. “Nothing more.” I hold my nose and gulp down the broth, trying not to gag.

Crutch’s real name is Benzyl Devor. He is part of my crèche and lives with his father in the core end of the Northern Downs, near the hub where the arms of the north, east, west and southern passageways converge. He got his nickname, Crutch, from Grammy because when I’m well enough to stand he can usually be found wedged under my arm helping me get from A to B.

“Good girl,” Grammy says, eyeing my empty broth glass. “Well, friend or suitor, Crutch seemed very eager for you to go on this crèche trip with him. Sounds like Miss Spearfaun is too. She thinks a lot of you. She knows how bright you are, doesn’t want you to miss out on anymore of your studies.”

“I’m not well enough to go Grammy.” I suddenly retch. The vitamin broth has left a thick, sticky coating on my teeth and palate. I scrub at it with my tongue and spit it into the glass, handing it to her.

“Thank you poppet,” Grammy says sarcastically, glancing into the glass. “The trip isn’t for two weeks. If you keep drinking your broth, eating your meals, and make some visits to the Hall of Sunlight as Doctor Mayjar suggests maybe you’ll feel up to going?”

I nod in agreement and force a smile, not wishing to quash her optimism. “Maybe,” I say in a small voice.

“Good.” Grammy smiles. “Crutch says the trip includes a guided tour of the Rat Ranch, the air maintenance shafts, and the Flesh Farms.”

“The Flesh Farms are the last thing I want to see,” I say, pulling the coarse bedclothes up to my chin. “I think I’d rather be ill.”

“Well I think it’ll do you good to get out of this bed and spend some time with Crutch and Miss Spearfaun. It will give you something else besides illness to think about.”

“I’ll have to see,” I say wearily. I can’t deny that it would be nice to see Crutch and stretch my aching legs, but our destination doesn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm.

Grammy plops the plate of compound meat on my lap. “This trip to the flesh farm could be a. . .” she glances at the doorway and leans toward me. “Godsend,” she whispers. “Who knows, maybe if you see how the meat is grown, you’ll feel better about eating it.”

I look down at the plate, my stomach tensing in protest at the meat’s sour aroma. I notice a long blond hair curling from the skin of the cooling gravy. I gently pull it out and hold it in front of my face. Clots of gravy and scribbles of meat cling to it, dripping and plopping back onto the plate revoltingly. It doesn’t belong to me or to Grammy; our hair is dark brown. My mind procures an image of ‘Bloated Bet’, a large, sweaty, vile tempered woman with lank blond hair who runs the kitchens of the Northern Downs. She has a skin disorder giving her perpetually flaky skin and outbreaks of oozing sores around her mouth. With a churning stomach, I wonder if anymore of Bloated Bet’s shed appendages have made it onto my plate. I heave and taste the acidic chalkiness of regurgitated vitamin broth as it forces its way up my throat. “Grammy, go get the bowl from the latrine. I’m going to be. . .” Before I can finish, I heave again, hurling the meagre contents of my stomach across the floor.


That night, I lie watching the perpetual motion of the extractor fan for hours. It spins confused thoughts of ships, lions, and plague victims through my mind, robbing me of sleep. In my delirium, I imagine a cool breeze drifting over me, soothing my fevered skin. A voice whispers to me in the darkness, comforting and calm, and I finally fade into unconsciousness.

Be still and know that I am god.


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